The first Women of the Year Lunch – which honoured, equally, 500 exceptional women – was the brainchild of Tony (Antonella) Lothian, a 33-year-old mother of six. It took place at a time when Britain was radically changing as a result of the war and the Labour government that followed, which she voted for, and was the first of its kind.

“Every woman, is a woman of the year.”

Tony Lothian

Tony Lothian

Tony had championed the underdog since her early years in Italy with her Italian mother’s family, and school in Nazi Germany. Here, in 1938, aged 16, she found out from a cleaner about the persecution of the Jews but could not get anyone to talk about it. She wrote: ‘Childhood loneliness was lifted by daydreaming, nearly always about my leading a campaign against injustice.’

She continued to tune into campaigns, even from her wheelchair in the Borders of Scotland until her death in 2007. She married the soldier Peter Kerr, 12th Marquess of Lothian in 1943, when she was a nursing auxiliary. Both were 21. They had met in their cradles, their mothers being friends. Peter went on to work for successive Conservative governments, while Tony helped charities and wrote for The Catholic Mother, the magazine of the Mothers’ Union. She loved the readers – miners’ wives, farmers’ wives, Hull fishermen’s wives – they reminded her of the Tuscan villagers she had lived among as a child, and she knew how hard their lives were. In her husband’s life she saw how frequently the powerful men and diplomats met in pleasant surroundings and were able to iron out problems. Why shouldn’t there be a similar annual charity lunch for women achievers, at the Savoy and with a toast-master?

They all laughed when Tony Lothian said women made the world go round. She was told by both sexes she would not find 500 famous women – career women provoked shudders in 1955. Tony enrolled two friends as co-founders of the lunch: Lady Georgina Coleridge, journalist, and Odette Hallowes, a British spy whom the Nazis caught and tortured in France. Georgina suggested inviting matrons and hospital administrators, and Tony sat on the floor, her customary desk, searching reference books for women not in white coats. The mixture still lacked any comprehensiveness. The co-founders made a list of 40 categories of work and found a woman in each whom they asked to nominate any outstanding colleagues. The lunch, on 29 September, earned money for the Greater London Fund for the Blind by the ground breaking idea of women meeting other working women. It took 24 years before this was given a name – ‘networking’ – in the Oxford Dictionary.

Tony did not want to use the lunch to elevate the already famous; she preferred to find special women who had not been noticed. Many of her unknowns went on to become well known.

Tony had a particular respect for women who work with their hands – cooks, carers, cheesemakers, foster mothers. But in the digital age, we have to use the technology and tell a story. Since 2001, three special prizes a year have been awarded at the lunch, with the achievements shown on screens. We can all see, from the edge of our seats, how magnificently women are doing in sport, killing-field journalism science, the arts and charitable endeavours. Tony herself has attended as a video since 2001, in her black and red clothes and pirate’s eye patch (she lost her eye to cancer), with her gravel-voiced jokes and wake-up call about some injustice which she, confined to home in the country, noticed first. It was then that the Hon Diana Makgill valiantly stepped into the breach and took on the role of president until 2005.

“Childhood loneliness was lifted by daydreaming, nearly always about my leading a campaign against injustice.”

Many of the lunch’s other speakers raised global issues long before they were aired in the international arena. In 1980, for example, Margaret Gowing, Oxford Professor of the History of Science, warned that the Earth could be destroyed by the atomic arms race. In 1984, Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in Space, begged the Women of the Year, as representing the women of Britain, to join Russia’s women to end the Cold War. Three years later, Valentina invited Tony to the World Congress of Women in the Kremlin, where they heard Gorbachev announce Glasnost and Perestroika.

Since 1955, women in this country have achieved a lot in work and at home. We can have a career and raise a family, often with the help of women from a less rich country, but it is hard. Women of the Year cannot be complacent. Yet the charge has been made that we are complacent, ‘ladies who lunch’. This is to distrust our fellow women. Tony had always trusted the bringing together of high and low, global and local. The lunch is women of merit choosing others on merit. It has also raised money for various charities and in 2001 Women of the year launched it’s own Foundation to help underprivileged women in this country and abroad.

This nurturing of newcomers remains more a female than a male virtue. Among Tony’s criteria for a woman of the year are unselfishness and usefulness. She would probably tell us to value the women helpers who care for our youngest and the old. Maureen Paton’s book about the lunch, The Best of Women: the History of Women of the Year, has a dedication by Tony: ‘To all the women whose work all over the world upholds communities now and in the future.’

We are still upholding Tony’s vision and still watching as women increasingly make the world go round.

“To all the women whose work all over the world upholds communities now and in the future.”